MONTPELIER — Main Street Middle School will ban the use of cellphones by students during school hours when school resumes Aug. 29.

The decision was taken because of concerns about distractions for students in class, and to address the broader issue of the impact of new technology on social interaction — or a lack of it — between students. It follows an internal review and a district-wide discussion among administrators in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District.

Under the new policy, students would not be allowed access to their cellphones at MSMS during school hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Instead, phones must be left in a student’s locker or cubby, or turned off and in their backpack. School officials said students and parents would still be able to communicate through the school office. At Montpelier High School, the use of cellphones by students is already restricted to hallway use, lunch time and recess, school officials said.

On social media, the issue was widely discussed, with most parents strongly favoring the new procedure.

“The first thing I would say is, cellphones is not a new issue and I’m not really sure I would call it an issue — it’s a part of life,” said MSMS Principal Pam Arnold. “How we have addressed students with cellphones has been evolving over quite a few years.

“Our ultimate goal is there is no need for kids to have cellphones while they’re in school. We want to maximize kids’ ability to access their learning while we have them in school for seven and a half hours a day,” she added.

News of the cellphone procedure first came from MHMS Assistant Principal Matt Roy at the last school assembly before the summer break. An official communique from Arnold to parents will go out in the school newsletter this week.

“There’s absolutely no need for cellphones, educationally or socially, for the school day,” Arnold said. “For technology needs, all our kids have Chromebooks that we assign to them to use during the school day. We’re finding that in order for our kids to really maximize their access to learning, cellphones are one distraction that we can support eliminating.

Arnold said that there is also a need to increase personal contact between students.

“One of the things since computers came out, even before cellphones, is the ability to have those face-to-face conversations, to have eye contact with each other when you’re having a conversation, whether you’re working together or traveling through the hallways,” Arnold said. “When you’re looking down at a phone, it’s distracting for people and you can bump into people inadvertently.

“So, absolutely this is going to support those inter-personal, one-on-one conversations and communication. That’s a huge positive, that’s a huge benefit,” she added.

Arnold said there had been strong support from parents over time for a procedure that limited student access to cellphones during school hours.

“We have received nothing but positive feedback,” Arnold said.

Arnold stressed that the procedure would be refined over time, based on outcome and response from students and parents. Consequences for not following the procedure was still unclear and would be carefully considered before being implemented, Arnold said.

“Punitive is not a word that I would connect with this — that’s not what this is about,” Arnold said. “That would be the extreme. This is the business about building relationships with kids and families.

“There’s going to be some speed bumps for kids because they’re pretty attached to those phones, at times. But conversations and building rapport relationships are absolutely critical. We’re a learning institution that this is one piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel echoed many of the observations and ideas about students having cellphones at school.

“One of the pieces of observational data that the principals and staff have noticed is that kids are walking through the hallways with their heads down and phone in hand,” Bonesteel said. “The idea of talking to each other was becoming rather obsolete.

“At that developmental age, we need and want kids talking to each other directly and not through texting,” she added.

Bonesteel said the new procedure was “technically” targeting the middle school but a similar policy was already in place at the high school.

The same ability for students and parents to communicate through the high school office existed at the high school, Bonesteel said.

The cellphone policy will be updated in the school’s handbook, and available online by Aug. 23.

Bonesteel also said there had been strong support for the new cellphone procedure at MSMS.

“I can tell you I have at least one student write to me and say, ‘Please ban cellphones. My friend and I don’t talk to each other anymore,’” Bonesteel said. “That I found very interesting.”

Bonesteel said there would be urgent situations — such as the incident at MHS involving former student Nathan Giffin in January 2018 — when it would be difficult to control or stop students and parents communicating via cellphone.

“I don’t honestly think we could control the situation,” Bonesteel said. “People are going to use what they have on hand.

“But it could also hinder investigations because false rumors are spread very quickly, and it could increase the crisis,” Bonesteel continued. “There are multiple perspectives, so it’s not an easy thing to talk about.

“I think we need to do a good job with the ethical use of technology; I think that’s the important piece,” she added.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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